Using the literature in your writing: interpretive notes, not summaries

by Howard Aldrich

At the beginning of my doctoral workshops on academic writing, I start with a simple question: “when you sit down to compose your draft paper, what does the space look like around you? Is it covered with books and journals? Photocopies of papers and articles?” Most students confirm this description, but others say no, it’s just them and their computer. However, when I push them, it turns out that they have multiple files open on their computer, with digital copies of papers and articles ready to be consulted. My response is always the same. I tell them they’ve begun to write too soon. They have skipped the stage where they impose their own interpretations on what they’ve read. They have failed to make the material useful for the narrative structure of their own story.

My claim is confirmed when I ask them why they still have all these raw materials lying around. Students say “I might forget something,” or “I wanted to make sure I got it exactly right” or “the author said it better than I could.” Their responses indicate that they have read the material but not really made it their own. They understood it sufficiently to know that it was relevant but they hadn’t yet put those ideas into their own words – – they still needed the words of the authors.

I probe further, asking what kinds of notes they have taken. Some have copied the abstract, others have made a list of concepts in the form of bullet points, and still others have compiled long lists of verbatim quotes. In all these cases, they are still working with the authors’ words, not theirs. At best, they will be able to offer a condensed version of what was in the original, but now shorn of its primary context. I suggest to them that if I really wanted to know what Mary Douglas had to say, I would just read her in the original. Why trust a pale reflection?

Moreover, by sticking so close to the original text, they’ve deprived themselves of the chance to write in their own voice. And editors and reviewers want original voices. Is there a better way to work with the literature when reviewing it for papers? Let me offer some suggestions.

First, your goal should be to write interpretive notes of what you read and not just simple summaries. Copying words from the text into your notes requires very little cognitive engagement. The words and phrases are held in short-term memory long enough to be transferred from one medium to another, with very little processing taking place. By contrast, writing to capture the meaning of what you’ve just read and explaining its relevance to your project requires higher order cognitive processing that reorganizes and stabilizes memories.

Second, think of the notes you are writing as a message to your future self, who will be reading them in a few weeks or perhaps even months. If your future self sees only bullet points or the reproduced words of a famous author, you may have to go back to the original to figure out why you felt the text was valuable enough to include in your notes. Hence, you’ll find again yourself sitting in your chair, surrounded by piles of raw material. So, make it easier for your future self – – explain in your notes why you feel this material is worthy/unworthy of discussion.

Moreover, because these notes are for your eyes only – – as opposed to the text that you put into the first draft of a paper – – you are free to be as casual, emotional, and judgmental as you wish. If you feel that an author has offered an outrageously ridiculous argument to explain something you’re studying, put that into your notes. Don’t pull your punches, writing something ambiguous that will require your future self to go back to consult the original text. Similarly, heap praise on arguments that you find compelling.

Third, as you begin to think about the notes you are taking as interpretive, rather than mere summaries, push yourself to make connections between this book or article and other things that you’ve read. For the moment, it can be quite simple, perhaps nothing other than simply saying “Merton seems to be having an implicit argument with Lazersfeld in this paper, but I think he missed Lazerfeld’s point.” Later, as you start to sort through your interpretive notes, you can check out this tentative interpretation by looking at your notes on the other authors.

Forcing yourself to think about making connections to other knowledge you’ve acquired in the course of your literature search involves retrieving information from long-term memory, thereby reinforcing it. Using it in a new context and applying it in an evaluative way helps you update your understanding of all the material you’ve read.

Fourth, rephrasing an author’s thoughts in your own words is a great way to deeply learn the material. Elaborating upon what they’ve written and generating your own text gives you the opportunity to express your own voice, rather than merely mimicking that of the authors you’ve read. Indeed, by steadfastly sticking to the principle of writing interpretive summaries rather than faithfully reproducing the original text, you’ll have prepared material that will readily fit into your paper’s narrative. This material is already in your own words, written in your style, and you own it.

Of course, if you do find that some of an author’s text is so perfect that it simply must be preserved, then by all means copy it into your interpretive note, but be sure to adequately document where it comes from. I suspect that as you become comfortable with trusting your own voice, you’ll have fewer occasions on which you feel you need to preserve original text.

When you have accumulated a sufficient stack of interpretive notes, it is time to sift through them, looking for connections, new directions, and arguments that need to be further researched. I like to write my notes on paper, rather than in digital form, as I find I can more easily sort through them, mark them in multiple colors to indicate different themes, and add pictures/diagrams. I use them to suggest an overall narrative structure for my outline, but the notes themselves are not the outline. I number the notes and when I have the first draft of my outline, I work my way through it, indicating by number where I might fit the ideas from a particular note. At this stage, some notes drop by the wayside. By contrast, gaps in my outline indicate where more notes are needed, which requires I go back to the literature.

So, if you find yourself sitting down to “write” your paper but are still burdened with piles of undigested raw material from your literature search, you have begun too soon. Instead, take the time to learn the skill of writing interpretive notes, rather than summaries. Use those interpretive notes to flesh out your outline, and discover the joy of finding that in the process of writing the interpretive notes, you have found your own authorial voice.

Cross-posted at howardaldrich.org.

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